Slacker sets you free to listen to customized radio

The 4.6-ounce devices are physically the same size — a gentle way to say the Slacker Portable is large and so-so looking. It's slightly heavier than an iPod Touch but more than twice as thick. It's a little bigger (but lighter) than a Zune.

Navigation is a bit crude. Volume controls are on top. On the right side is a scroll wheel, plus buttons for home, skip and pause. But an alternative "touch strip" navigation control on the left edge is so ultrasensitive as to be useless. (Fortunately, you can turn it off.)

You will welcome the extra real estate on the roomy 4-inch screen, which can display album cover art, artist profiles and, in some cases, reviews. But it can't display videos (or your own pictures).

•Sour notes. The sound was generally excellent using the supplied earphones; there are no built-in speakers. But more than once I encountered momentary hiccups near the beginning of some songs. And there were occasional buffering delays between songs.

You can intentionally pause a track in the middle or skip ahead. You cannot rewind. There are other restrictions, unless you spring for a premium subscription plan.

You can skip a song only up to six times an hour, per station. The name of the next artist to be played is displayed on the screen but not the actual title. Slacker's on-board "intelligent DJ" handles the skip limits.

Premium subscribers ($7.50 a month on an annual basis) can skip as often as they please. The premium service won't have audio ads (which are otherwise coming).

Subscribers can also hit a "favorite" button on the device as they listen to a song to store and play it at any time. You can hit a "ban" button to avoid particular songs.

Slacker says the removable rechargeable battery will last up to 10 hours of playback, which seems wimpy. Still, Slacker Portable is an intriguing device that promises to only get better in the future.

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com

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